"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 24 November 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.
News above the Title



A Denver patrol cop was killed

last week, shot 15 times by

a burglary suspect armed with an

assault rifle. The dozens of

officers who poured into the

neighborhood in the following

minutes didn't realize that

officer Bruce VanderJagt was

dead; trading heavy fire with

his killer, they quickly came up

with a plan to drag what they

believed was a wounded colleague

to safety. With another SWAT

officer firing bursts of

automatic rifle fire directly

over the suspect's head, officer

Mark Haney ran to VanderJagt's

side and dragged him to cover.


At first, Haney hadn't known

which officer had been shot. But

as he pulled the body across

15 yards of open ground

while bullets zipped directly

overhead and a killer crouched

within whispering distance of

him, he realized that he was

trying to save someone he had

known and worked with.


Haney also realized, in that

same piece of open ground, that

VanderJagt was beyond saving.


After a stand-off, the burglar,

a career criminal named Matthaes

Jaehnig, killed himself with

VanderJagt's service pistol.


The next day, and the day after

that, readers opened the Denver

Post to learn that the gun

battle that claimed two lives

had been just like a movie.

Residents of the apartment

complex where the shootout had

taken place, the Post reported,

had been trapped indoors while

"what was described as a scene

from a war movie erupted in

their parking lot." One of the

residents was more specific,

telling a reporter that the

hundreds of rounds fired, and

the two lives lost, had been

"like something that was in




The next edition of the Post brought a

new take. The bloodshed was, it

turns out, from a different

genre than originally suspected:

"Jaehnig's body lay for hours in

the cold night - like a scene

out of a mob movie - before police

could finish their



Fairly remarkable, isn't it,

that our most horrifying moments

- our few departures from the

dailiness of life, those events

that bust the limits of the

ordinary and force us to

confront fear, pain, death -

remind us of nothing so much as

media product? My father died in

a car wreck - it was like

something out of an episode of

Seinfeld! (My daughter was

kidnapped, raped, and murdered -

it was like seeing the Stones on

tour!) What broke out in that

parking lot, with literally

hundreds of rounds being fired

by and at real live human

beings, wasn't like war; it was

like a war movie, like cinema.

The critics didn't reveal

whether it more closely

resembled a bargain matinee or a

regular full-price showing.


But this wasn't all the Post had

to say. Two of the paper's

ordinarily capable columnists,

Mark Obmascik and Chuck Green,

lined up over the same two

editions to provide meaning and

context for readers struggling

to make sense of the killing: A

"criminal punk," a "gutless

murderer," had been chased by

"one of the finest of Denver's

finest." Then "the city was

pierced with a sickening sound,"

and "an all-American guy," a

"devoted and hard-working

father," died "on a cold

concrete walkway, his blood

drained from a body pierced by a

horrendous burst of gunfire."


Oh, right: "And a stunned city

asks an unanswerable question:



It's not often that reading the

newspaper feels so precisely

like watching a TV rerun.


OK: All that the columnists

wrote was true. All of it was so

plainly and obviously true, in

fact, that no one would ever

need to read any of it to know;

this is like opening the

newspaper to learn that Hitler

was bad, rape is wrong, and fire

can burn you. Worse, there was

no lack of substance that cried

out to be expanded on and

analyzed, no vacuum that a

newspaper would have needed to

fill with Sturm und Drang

condemnations of someone so

plainly worthy of condemnation.



Seeking to help their readers

understand the shooting, the

Post and its columnists might

have done a few things a little

differently. A piece of

information buried 23 paragraphs

into the jump page of a story

that ran three days after

VanderJagt's death might, for

example, have been played a

little higher - assuming that

room could have been found among

all those adjectives: namely,

the fact that VanderJagt had

been shot an astonishing 15

times, apparently without firing

a single shot in return. This

alone paints a far more chilling

portrait of the officer's

killing than all the paper's

other carrying on: Seeking a

fleeing felon, a cop partially

stepped out from behind cover,

and was shot 15 times before he

had the barest opportunity to

react. A single, simple fact

tells you the story of a human

being, trapped in an impossible

situation, who never had a

chance. It tells you about the

power of the weapons cops now

face on the street. And it tells

you all of this with no need for

words like "hero" or "punk" or

"good cop" or "vicious thug."


The columnists might also have

thoughtfully explored Jaehnig's

long history of violence and

other criminal behavior,

including the information, again

played deep and short, that the

cop killer had once before

reached for a gun while a police

officer approached him during a

traffic stop. They might have

explored why, with this history

- with arrests for more than 30

alleged crimes by the age of 25

- he wasn't in prison. They

might have linked this to a

story that ran the very same

week on the front page of the

same paper, a story about the

governor of Colorado telling

legislators that the state could

no longer keep up with the

construction of the new prisons

needed to house the state's

exploding prison population. How

can a state that's locking up

unprecedented numbers of people

not imprison a man who

practically has a sign around

his neck that says "future cop




On Sunday, four days after the

killing, the Post finally worked

a single short story in the

second section of the paper

about the SKS rifle, the weapon

Jaehnig used to kill VanderJagt.

As it turns out, the Denver cop

wasn't the first police officer

to be shot with the same kind of

weapon. Information informs;

analysis enlightens. This is why

newspapers exist - or, at least,

it was why newspapers existed.


Newspapers, however,

increasingly omit or bury

descriptive language, preferring

instead to lead with language

that categorizes and codifies:

hero cop, heartless thug. For

all the thundering about

VanderJagt's heroism, the

reduction of that very real

courage - and very real horror -

to melodrama is, finally, a

monstrous act of disrespect, the

transformation (really, the

reduction) of a life into a



We like to note that the movies

the entertainment industry has

been feeding us lately have been

getting dumber: increasingly

less well developed;

increasingly lacking in

subtlety; feeling, to the

viewer, increasingly like

watching cardboard cutouts wage

the same battle behind a series

of different faces. What's less

often noted is just how

precisely our lives are coming

to correspond with the strangely

inhuman shallowness of our

entertainment. Which is perhaps

appropriate, considering our

newly found conviction that our

lives, at their most extreme,

resemble nothing so much as

light flickering on a screen.


Is it too late to get a rewrite?

courtesy of Ambrose Beers